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Just after midnight on July 19, 1952, "seven pips appeared suddenly" on National Airport's control center radar in Washington, according to this unattributed cartoon depicting those UFO sightings. "There's one ... and there it goes!" a nearby airline pilot reportedly radioed.

When the USAF Was in the UFO Business
(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

When the USAF Was in the UFO Business

By Della M. Rios

WASHINGTON -- "Rumors about the saucer mystery fly almost as fast as the strange sights themselves," pronounced the narrator of a 1952 Paramount newsreel, commenting on a rash of UFO sightings from New York to Washington.

He added ominously: "With this evidence, the mystery thickens."

And so it seemed.

A comic book narrative of the time came down on the side of believers. "SAUCERS OVER WASHINGTON, D.C.," blared its bold black headline. It dismissed the military's "glib" explanation of radar blips seen that July by National Airport flight controllers. Simply a case of temperature inversion or reflections of ground objects, insisted the Air Force brass. But what about the pilot, the cartoonist countered, who described "a bright light moving faster, at times, than a shooting star"?

Well, what about it?

From 1947 to 1969, Americans accounted for 12,618 reports of unidentified flying objects. It was up to investigators at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to determine if extraterrestrial beings, in fact, had descended from space to Earth.

This work was incendiary enough to be classified. But the government bestowed a bureaucratic name just the same: "Project Blue Book."

It went on until 1969. That year, the United States Air Force declared itself out of the UFO business, but not before concluding that 701 sightings remained "unidentified."

Not to worry, Wright-Patterson officials assured the public in a 1985 fact sheet:

"No UFO reported, investigated and evaluated by the Air Force has ever given any indication of threat to our national security; there has been no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as `unidentified' represent technological developments or principles beyond the range of present-day scientific knowledge; and there has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as `unidentified' are extraterrestrial vehicles."

Just to be clear: Should anyone feel threatened by something he or she sees, the Air Force advised, "contact a local law enforcement agency."

And one last thing: "Periodically, it is erroneously stated that the remains of extraterrestrial visitors are or have been stored at Wright-Patterson AFB. There are not now nor ever have been, any extraterrestrial visitors or equipment on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base."

Did Project Blue Book really lead to such a disappointing end?

The unconvinced -- or the merely curious -- are welcome to see for themselves. Blue Book's documents and photographs comprise 42 cubic feet of declassified records -- numbering 2,000 pages per cubic foot -- now housed in the Military Reference Branch of the National Archives. They can be accessed through 94 rolls of 35 mm microfilm.

A glimpse inside the files finds a graphic charting coverage of UFOs -- including in the popular magazines LOOK and LIFE -- against subsequent spikes in sightings. There was a outbreak of them in the summer of 1952. Even Harry S. Truman got involved. A July 26, 1952 memo out of Box 26 reveals that "the President had requested Gen. Landry to find out the details of the sighting that had occurred in Washington on Saturday night."

That 1952 newsreel, with its breathless narration, describes how "across the river from New York City, a Jersey City volunteer air-defense observer reports that not only has he spotted a flying saucer in the nighttime sky over Manhattan, but that he's actually photographed it."

What was it, really?

We are left to wonder.

A sampling of the billions of artifacts and documents in the National Archives is on view in the Public Vaults exhibit. See

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